Saturday, November 30, 2013

Thankful

Well, I'm back in Utah for the third time in eight weeks. I think my parents are starting to suspect that I've moved back in, but the goal of this trip was to see a portion of my extended family and spend a legitimate holiday with everyone in my immediate family. Since Beat and I haven fallen into a tradition of spending Christmas in Alaska, Thanksgiving has taken on a more significant meaning as a traditional family gathering. Also for this trip, I packed out a large suitcase of Alaska-specific gear with hopes that an Arctic cold front would blow in and offer ample testing opportunities. No such luck, as the weather has been clear, ten to fifteen degrees above normal, and absolutely gorgeous. Sigh. So disappointing.

Having just escaped mob madness at the SLC airport on Wednesday afternoon, with a little over two hours of daylight to spare, my dad and I took a leisurely walk up Bells Canyon. When I was a child in the Salt Lake Valley, I believed November was the ugliest month of the year. Nothing but gray skies, blah temperatures, and brown trees stripped of all of their leaves. Right? November. Blech.

Obviously, I feel a little differently these days.

Dad and Lower Bells Canyon Falls.

On Black Friday, Dad and I continued another tradition of ignoring all things Black Friday and enjoying a post-Thanksgiving slog up the appropriately named Gobbler's Knob. Temperatures on this day were in the mid-40s, which felt toasty despite my Californiafied blood. However, because of sea level acclimation, hiking at elevation always makes me feel as though I've suddenly lost a lot of fitness. Add a 3,500-foot climb, breaking trail in knee-deep slush with a sun crust, and a summit push up a relentlessly steep pitch over chunky boulders masked with thin snow, and you have all the ingredients for a fantastic workout. I love a good slog.

The snow was never quite deep enough for us to put on snowshoes, but ranged from a few inches to thigh-deep and everything in between. The snowpack on these south-facing slopes had a thick crust that was breakable enough to collapse under our weight, but condensed enough to trap our feet beneath the snow. This often made it feel like I was hiking with 50-pound weights strapped to each leg, tearing my quads apart just to lift a knee. Tough walking. It took us 2.5 hours to hike four miles.

It was worth it.

I packed my new windproof fleece jacket along for the slog with gear-testing ambitions in mind, only to reach the summit and discover there wasn't a breath of wind, and temperatures were still above freezing, at 10,300 feet. I have memories of summer afternoons on Wasatch summits that felt colder than this. We took a long lunch break, lounging in the sun and eating leftover Thanksgiving rolls for lunch, when a skier tromped up from the north side of the mountain. He was an older guy, wearing faded cargo pants and scuffed skis, with long beard and a shock of tangled strawberry blond hair stuffed beneath a trucker hat. He was aghast that we'd climbed all the way up the mountain but didn't bring skis. Then he told us a fascinating story about a massive avalanche he barely survived on the face of Gobbler's Knob — took a 1,500-foot ride and caught his arm on a tree, dislocating his shoulder but managing to stay afloat. "It was a peaceful experience, floating along on my back next to those big blocks of snow. I mean, I knew I was going 70 miles per hour, but it was like time stood still, riding with those blocks of snow."

I forgot to ask his name, but he told us the exact date of the avalanche — February 7, 2010 — so looked up the slide he described; he wasn't exaggerating. Thanks to the wonders of Google I was able to learn more about him — turns out he's a Utah backcountry ski fixture nicknamed "The Wizard of the Wasatch" and has been employed by the Utah Avalanche Forecast Center. We didn't believe him when he said he had 3,500 lifetime ski days so far, but maybe he wasn't exaggerating about that, either. You meet the most fascinating people in the mountains.

On the way back down the canyon, we saw a bull moose foraging in the brush. You meet fascinating animals in the mountains, too.

Of course there was plenty of quality family time and pie eating between the outdoor adventures. When in Salt Lake over the holidays, there's of course the obligatory visit to the Christmas light display at the Salt Lake Temple grounds.

My Surly Karate Monkey is going to live with my sister Lisa, and today I finally put the bike together and set out to deliver "Kim" to Lisa's home in West Jordan. Of course I couldn't ride out there without taking a spin around the Bonneville Shoreline Trail in Corner Canyon. This was the trail system where I trained in the weeks prior to the 2009 Tour Divide, so taking Kim on one last ride here seemed apt. Some trail sections were muddy like this, but most were bone dry and it was another warm day. I wore a T-shirt and knee-length tights, no need for hat and gloves — although the Utahns I encountered were all bundled up.

I don't necessarily agree with the platitudes of giving thanks. It's ridiculous to dedicate just one day out of the year to gratitude, just as it would be ridiculous to designate a "happiness day." But I do appreciate the ceremonies that Thanksgiving encourages, the tradition of families coming together for the sake of coming together, and the tradition of going home for the sake of going home. Every year at Thanksgiving, my grandmother upheld the before-dinner tradition of having everyone name one thing we're thankful for. With upwards of forty people crammed in the house, this ritual would often go on until the turkey was cold and a white film had formed on top of the candied yams. Nobody loved the ritual, but we were all surprised when this year, at the age of 83, she simply forgot to request this. But I actually had a plan this year, for what I was going to say — I'm thankful for my past. For my past, the places where it resides, and everyone and everything in it. It's been a wonderful journey so far. 

Monday, November 25, 2013

Week 2, Nov. 18 to 24

Given our vague but long-term plans for the Snoots in winter touring, I don't intend to put many pavement and dirt miles on this bike, thereby wearing down expensive tires and other parts unnecessarily. But the temptation to go out and play with this fun new toy is hard to resist, even though I feel a little silly waiting at stop lights while straddling an expedition fat bike. Plus, there is the issue of being a somewhat stranger-shy introvert, riding a bike that couldn't be more conspicuous. As I was pedaling up Foothill Boulevard, at least three road cyclists on the other side of the wide street called out to me — "fat bikes rule!," "what is that?" and another greeting I didn't catch. Near the top of Black Mountain, while spinning the granny up a 15-percent-grade on loose gravel, a hiker walking down the hill wanted to ask me a dozen questions. "It's for snow," I gasped. "To ride in Alaska." And finally, "sorry, can't stop, won't be able to start again."

My main goal for the Sunday ride, besides playing with the fun new toy and confronting social anxieties, was to ride the Snoots on familiar trails to get a better sense of the handling and fit compared to my other bikes. But it is more work, pedaling this bike, and some feeble attempts at power bursts on the steeper hills made it apparent how empty my legs felt on Sunday. The combination of a big week in terms of effort, combined with a light lunch and late-day ride, brought on feelings of weakness and fatigue. I used to get frustrated with these emotions, but now I let it go. I make a conscious decision to do so. "My legs are torched. Oh well."

And it's funny, but since I started making a choice to shrug off fatigue, these "empty leg" rides have become some of my favorite rides. Don't get me wrong, I love those strong days when all systems seem to be firing on high and I feel like I can conquer anything with ease. But the weak days have their own quiet appeal — a decision to let go of the illusion of control, sit back, and see what happens. Enjoy the rich colors cast by the afternoon sun. Listen to some Regina Spektor. What I've found is a serene, Zen-like state that quiets the chatter in my mind and propels my body forward all the same. Meditative movement. It's a great thing to practice for those long hauls.

Monday: Road bike, 2:28, 33.5 miles, 3,800 feet climbing. Highway 9 to Page Mill. I climbed Highway 9 faster than I intended, because there were two long sections of construction. I hate to feel like I'm holding up traffic in the single lane, so I try my best to keep up. Drivers may feel like they're inching along at 15 to 20 miles per hour up a 9-percent grade, but it feels like hyper-drive into the pain cave on a road bike.

Tuesday: Run, 1:01, 6.6 miles, 688 feet climbing. Typical Tuesday run through the Monta Vista substation to Rancho, but as an out-and-back instead of the loop. I didn't push hard on the hills because I was still wary of the bike crash knee injury, but the pain didn't return once this week. Maybe it was the wound all along, and it's finally healed enough to no longer be a concern.

Wednesday: Run, 2:16, 11.4 miles, 1,652 feet climbing. Started out in the pouring rain, some of the trails were bogged down in sticky/slippery clay mud, and I did not feel well. The truth is, I felt really bad when I started out, enough that I made my first pit stop at Trader Joes, which is a whole 0.25 miles away from my apartment. Normally I would opt out in a case like this, since running in such a state is unlikely to yield many fitness benefits. But given what I'm preparing for, I feel it's important to practice the art of moving forward when I feel bad. And then a strange thing happened. I never felt markedly better, but I did slip into that meditative movement state, got buzzed on the endorphins and the novelty of the weather, and ended up running much further than I even intended before I started out. I did pay for this effort, though, in the form of feeling spaced out and depleted for the rest of the evening.

Thursday: Road bike, 1:30, 17.5 miles, 2,702 feet climbing. Felt fine the next day, though. I usually bounce back quickly from tough workouts, unless that workout involves relative "speed" and have to recover from muscle micro-tears and other actual physical damage. This was just the usual Montebello Road climb, at a good recovery pace.

Friday: Road bike, 1:15, 18.5 miles, 1,925 feet climbing. I only had one Highway 9 construction zone sprint during this ride. My heart rate probably did climb into the 180s, which reminds me that I should try to sync my heart-rate-monitor with my current GPS so I can gauge intensity. I do get spurts of high intensity in nearly every workout I do, just by nature of choosing routes with a fair amount of elevation gain. But I like to keep the high-intensity bursts organic instead of calculated, because I'm not actually training to get faster. I'm training to get more efficient — which translates to faster — at a sustained multiday effort.

Saturday: Run, 5:45, 23.5 miles, 4,377 feet climbing. The Point Reyes Run that I blogged about yesterday. We kept the pace casual and made plenty of stops, but I felt great the whole time. There were a few instances of a strange sensation in my right knee, which I can't even describe as pain — more like a flash of instability, perhaps an anticipation of pain. But it never actually hurt. Beat and Steve started laying down some relatively fast miles for the final five miles as I tried to keep up, and there was about 1.5 miles total of beach running that was reasonably strenuous.

Sunday: Fat bike, 2:45, 25 miles, 3,384 feet climbing. Perhaps a little ambitious for the day after a long run, but this turned out to be a rather enjoyable if bonky ride.

Total: 17 hours, 94.5 miles ride, 41.5 miles run, 18,533 feet climbing

This was a big week. I'd be lying if I said I can't feel it, but it is interesting how painlessly it can all pass at the right pace. That said, it's probably best to dial back a bit this coming week. I figure that will happen anyway with Thanksgiving travel and festivities. I'm headed to Utah to spend the holiday with my extended family, and hoping to get some hiking and winter gear testing in the mountains while I'm there. Crossing my fingers for an Arctic cold front. Sorry, Sara. 

Saturday, November 23, 2013

A relaxing day at the beach

I'm not sure I could ever get excited about training for a calculated, reasonable fitness goal — not when there are outlandish adventures to be had. And, like many milestones in life, it's not even so much about the outcome of the outlandish adventure as it is about the journey there. The preparations. The training. How do you train for an outlandish adventure? With smaller adventures, wherever they can be found and woven into the fabric of daily life. Fitness for the sake of fitness? Sure, that's great. But fitness for the sake of adventure? There's the hook for something meaningful.

Now that it's winter training season, I'm hoping to put in weekly long, leisurely paced runs and/or hikes. The very best part of this goal is asking myself, "Okay, where do I want to run this week?" For more than a year now, I've followed Leor Pantilat's fantastic adventure running blog, and at this point I must have twenty of his route ideas saved in my "Life List" file. The guy covers big miles on jaw-dropping routes across Northern California and the High Sierra, taking fabulous photos along the way. One of the more local runs is his Point Reyes Pilgrimage, a 24-mile, figure-8 loop through the hills and along the coast of this National Seashore. I recruited our friends Harry, Martina, and Steve to join us for the Saturday outing.

The weather couldn't have been more sublime. Sixty degrees, clear skies, comfortable humidity, no wind — not even an errant breeze. Summers on the Northern California coast are frequently cool and foggy, but winters here have a higher frequency of clear and warm weather. The best part about this mix-up of seasons is, summer is still the busy season for tourism. During the fall and winter, beautiful days such as this can be enjoyed in relative peace and solitude.

Descending the Woodward Valley Trail toward Drakes Bay.

Leor's route had spurs leading out to a few beaches, but he noted that some of these beaches were only accessible at low tide. We knew that high tide was right in the middle of the day, but there wasn't much we could do about it — we also only have nine hours of daylight to work with this time of year. Still, we scrambled along the rocks of Sculptured Beach with tempered hopes that we'd be able to attain access to Secret Beach.

Within a few hundred yards, we were debating whether it was worth wading through this keyhole. Currents are strong in this region and can rip a swimmer out to sea without much warning. If you lost your balance in the wrong wave at the wrong time, things could go bad in a hurry. We opted to turn around.

There was still fun scrambling to be had, though, even if it wasn't completely necessary.

There was 4,300 feet of climbing on this route, but by far the most strenuous part of the run was jogging through the sand along the shoreline. Despite mild temperatures, my face and arms cascaded sweat. Steve and I joked about working this hard for 350 miles of Alaska snow while wearing primaloft body armor and towing a 30-pound sled, and then stopped laughing because it wasn't a joke. This is actually how tough the ITI is going to be, pretty much the entire way. I try not to think too much about it on a beautiful November afternoon on a beach in California. At least I have a justifiable excuse to come back here soon.

Arch Rock. Running toward this cliff, I thought, there's no way we're ever going to get around that. Lo and behold, there was an arch under Arch Rock, allowing us to slip under the cliff and climb up a drainage on the other side.

Martina and Harry are both recovering from injuries and opted to skip the second ten-mile loop. We left them on Arch Rock and began the long climb back to the ridge.

While we nibbled on snacks above Wildcat Camp, Steve said, "This is why I became a trail runner. I wanted to have the fitness to just run and hike places like this all day, without it being a big deal." Yes. Exactly that. It doesn't have to be outlandish, extreme, epic, whatever superlative you feel like using — it can just be a relaxing day at the beach.

We crossed Wildcat Beach to Alamere Falls. When we arrived here, there were at least two dozen other people milling about the area. We ran 15 miles to this point and had only seen a handful of people so far all day, so the crowds shattered our illusions that Point Reyes, despite its proximity to San Francisco, is a hidden secret of an idyllic coastline. But the falls were a gorgeous destination, and the point were we turned to run north again.

The Glen Trail was a fun romp through a lush Douglas Fir forest, with more green than I have seen in a while. It was a great day. Thanks, friends. And thanks to Leor for the inspiration. I can see Point Reyes becoming a pilgrimage of our own.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

A moving distraction

My attention span, ugh. I think I join most of the modern world in the sentiment that social media wreaks havoc on one's ability to concentrate. And Words With Friends! What faulty wiring in my brain makes it crave a regular hit of that stupid game more than it craves chocolate or caffeine? I have been chipping away at book chapters; supposedly this is work I enjoy. And yet, writing often feels more like a test of endurance than anything else in my life. I chip and scratch and delete, and without even deciding to, find my way over to the New York Times homepage and suddenly a half hour is gone. You know how it goes. I do have my Internet-free "concentrate dammit" zones, but it's becoming a little too cold to sit outside by the pool.

On the days I do contract work, I'm more than happy to sit inside clickity clacking all day. Editing projects are wonderful; my objective is well-defined and immediate. Writing is more vague. It's a tough thing to force. And the more I resolve to chain myself to a desk and get something — anything — done, the more I feel that unquenchable desire to go play outside.

This morning, I thought to myself, "You've been hitting the training thing a bit hard over the past week. Maybe today should be a rest day. And a 5,000-word day! And a zero-word day in Words With Friends. Wouldn't that be amazing?"

By mid-afternoon, it started raining, hard. I haven't seen such a display of exciting weather in my own time zone in months, and I couldn't help but leave the confines of my workspace to stare out the window with my nose pressed against the cold glass. I thought to myself, "A little run won't hurt. Get soaking wet, maybe even blasted by some wind. It will be good inspiration for the book."

I suited up and headed out the door, and immediately felt sluggish. All morning I dealt with some gastrointestinal issues; this happens occasionally as part of the monthly cycle. But it meant most of my system had emptied out before I even hit the pavement. Clearly this wasn't a good day for a run, but the storm was already breaking up, and strips of sunshine glistened through still-heavy sheets of rain. "I'll just run slow, and start walking back if my knee hurts," I thought to myself.

I veered onto a dirt trail, and within minutes had to hoist some rather heavy adobe bricks that had formed around my shoes. This is what happens when the first rain in weeks falls onto a thick layer of moondust and dead grass. The resulting paste was at once sticky and slimy, and it was difficult to anticipate whether each footfall was going to glue me to the ground or send me into an uncontrolled slide. Clearly this wasn't a good day for a run, but there was a double rainbow forming over the Santa Clara Valley that I didn't want to miss, and anyway, even a sickly mud run is easier than writing.

There was not one, but two outhouse stops on the outskirts of Rancho. My abdomen started cramping up in a way that wasn't like a stomachache or a side stitch, but more like an actual muscle cramp stretched across my core. But I was really enjoying listening to the new Naked and Famous album, and the sun was threatening to emerge all the way out of the clouds and cast golden afternoon light over the hillsides. And anyway, it's good mental training to do an icky slow run from time to time. I headed up the Rogue Valley Trail and maybe don't want to admit how far I actually ran. Let's just say I eventually looked at my watch and realized I was going to end up chasing darkness if I didn't start back toward home and pick up the pace. But I was thoroughly blissed out by this point. The air had warmed up, I had the whole big park nearly to myself, and given more daylight, I may have decided to continue up the mountain all the same.

I strode toward home feeling inspired, filled with so many new ideas. I was going to march right to the computer and get them all down before I even jumped into the shower. But walking up the stairs, I was overcome with enough woozy ickiness that I opted to lay on the living room carpet for several minutes instead. All of those great ideas slipped back through the funnel of self-doubt, as they so often do once the luster of the run has faded. But I managed to tap out a few quick thoughts before I consumed some much-needed fructose in the form of a fruit snack. And thus, I managed to stretch distraction into a two-hour run. But I did have fun, and that kind of fun sure beats Words With Friends. 

Monday, November 18, 2013

Week 1, Nov. 11 to Nov. 17

Tracking my training is something I want to try this winter. Even though I don't have a plan or a clear set of directives, it will be nice to have a comprehensive record of my activities. My hope is to use methods that have worked for me in the past regarding multi-day efforts, and try to put in a higher volume of sustained, low- to moderate-intensity workouts for the next three months. Also, there will likely be a few Strava-PR-chasing efforts that qualify as high intensity to mix things up. Beat will probably disagree with the higher volume idea, but Beat can thrive on far less training than I can. I tend to fall apart mentally without a solid amount of time investment and preparation behind me (cough, cough, PTL.)

Although Strava is convenient, I thought it would be even better to commit to one of those weekly training roundups on the blog, to more thoroughly record exactly what I did, how I felt, and any nagging pains or other issues that are causing concern. These types of posts can bore blog readers, but oh well. What good is a personal blog if it can't be used to record life? I figure Frog Hollow was officially the end of the summer season, and then the week after was a rest week — week zero. This is my activity log for week one, Nov. 11 to 17:

Monday: Mountain biking, 2:41, 23.9 miles, 3,048 feet climbing. 

This was my first real workout after crashing at Frog Hollow one week earlier. My right knee had been sore and tight all week, so I planned a mellow ride. But then I made this spur-of-the-moment decision to ride the Steven's Creek loop backward, which means climbing up the trail and then descending pavement on Montebello Road. I rarely ride the route this way, because why descend pavement instead of dirt? But I'd forgotten just how many steep, punchy climbs there are in Steven's Creek Canyon. Every hard pedal stroke would jab the wounded side of my right knee, which was painful and frustrating. I had a bit of a temper tantrum while climbing Indian Creek trail, sulked about my knee for a minute, walked for several minutes, decided to put on a jacket and discovered a package of Honey Stinger Chews left over from Frog Hollow in my pack, ate the Honey Stinger Chews, felt a little bit better, and spun the rest of the way to Black Mountain without issue.

Tuesday: Run, 0:58, 5.7 miles, 596 feet climbing

Did the typical Tuesday hour-long run from home on the Hammond Snyder Loop Trail. I kept the pace easy because I was worried about my knee. There were only a a couple of sharp jabs on the steeper climbs.

Wednesday: Run, 1:12, 6.3 miles, 1,201 feet climbing

This week was all about diverging from my usual routine. On Wednesday I returned to a loop I haven't run in months, tracing Steven's Creek Reservoir to the ridge in Fremont Older Reserve. Beat and I used to run versions of this route often in summer 2011, especially after I ripped open my elbow in a bike crash and couldn't ride for nearly two months. It was a painful injury and that pain is still what I associate with this trail system. But it is a beautiful route, especially at sunset with fingers of autumn light reaching over Black Mountain to the west. There was, oddly, no knee pain, and I shuffled all the way up a steep, half-mile-long climb that I usually hike.

Thursday: Mountain bike, 3:28, 28.8 miles, 3,603 feet climbing

Within short pedaling distance of my house is a piece of singletrack I've never ridden, despite living here for nearly three years — the upper Table Mountain Trail. On Thursday I set out to change that never-ridden status. I don't ride the lower trail often either, because it's steep with hairpin curves and a lot of roots, which require bursts of power that don't make for happy knees. I'm not really sure why I decided to do this, but my knee didn't seem angry anymore and I really enjoyed the steep, bumpy climbing. (I actually do enjoy technical mountain biking, as long as I am working against gravity and not the other way around. This goes for pretty much any sport I do.)

Once I turned onto upper Table Mountain, the singletrack dropped into a thickly forested drainage, climbed a steep, off-camber trail along a vertigo-inducing side slope, caught a quick glimpse through the trees of the Black Mountain ridge, and descended into a dark drainage again. This segment of trail is only three miles long, but it seemed to go on like this interminably. And each time I reached the crest of another drainage, Black Mountain was in the exact same spot. It felt as though I wasn't making any progress, forward or upward, because I would descend as many feet as I'd climb. It was very Twilight Zone, and as I rode through a darkening forest, the sun slipped behind the horizon and sent an eerie wash of blood red light across the sky. I was seriously spooked, which is something I don't often feel on my home trails. It was nice, actually — to be out having an adventure. But by the time I reached Saratoga Gap, I was so disoriented that I rode in the wrong direction for a while before I noticed headlights from Skyline Drive and wrestled with confusion as to why the road was on the wrong side. Oh, because I'm going the wrong way. It was pitch dark, chilly, and silent as I descended back into the canyon on the Grizzly Flat Trail, which was awesome. I should go night riding more often. If only it was more legal.

Friday: Run, 1:21, 8 miles, 1,623 feet of climbing

On Thursday night I went to get an annual flu shot, which usually makes people feel under the weather, but it seems to have the opposite effect on me. It's as though the dead virus fires up the immune system, without any of the side effects of sickness, which results in a burst of energy. I'd call it a placebo or a coincidence, but I experienced something similar last year, and didn't even think about it this year until after the fact. But for whatever reason, I felt all sorts of amazing on this run around the PG&E and High Meadow Trails in Rancho San Antonio. I didn't even try to push the pace or work hard, and still managed to float up the climb in one of my faster efforts (45 minutes), with no knee pain.

Saturday: Run, 2:07, 10.6 miles, 1,984 feet of climbing

Beat has this rule about not running two days in a row when dealing with a nagging pain or injury. It's a good rule. But I felt so amazing on Friday that I couldn't wait to get back out again, and both Beat and Liehann were interested in running in the afternoon. We followed the same loop I ran on Friday, with an extra 2.6 miles because Beat and I started from home. We kept a mellow pace on the PG&E trail, but the knee started acting up about one mile from the top. I walked most of this mile while periodically massaging my knee, and the result was (unsurprisingly) not that much slower than my usual running pace. But then the full knee lockup that I experienced last week returned during the descent, which caused me to run downhill stiffly and badly (by which I mean, even worse than usual.)

Sunday: Road bike, 2:49, 28 miles, 4,561 feet of climbing

I managed to talk Beat into a road ride. We did a double Montebello Road climb at a mellow pace, to avoid hard cranking that might aggravate my cranky knee. Our friends Liehann and Trang joined us as well, but everyone had their own pace and we didn't see much of them. Beat layered up for both descents, the second time wearing a down coat, gloves, and a balaclava that he wanted to test for windproofness. He looked like he was gearing up for the trek to Nome, at 50 degrees in California. But in all fairness it does get frigid on that descent when the sun slips behind the mountains and the windchill clamps down. My muscles cooled down so much on the first descent that it took me most of the second ascent to feel fluid again. No knee pain.

This latest knee issue is strange; I haven't been able to peg it quite yet. The pain only occasionally manifests when I'm pushing hard while climbing, jabbing like a dull knife with every full bend. But then I won't feel it at all for long intervals. Saturday was the only day it started locking up again, but I thought I'd moved past that after last week, because it seemed to be related to the crash, not training. I still suspect it's just that wound, accompanying bruise, and healing involved with that. We'll see. I'm going to visit our orthopedic massage therapist again this week, so he might have some more insight.

Week total: 14:37 time, 80.7 miles ride, 30.6 miles run, 16,619 feet of climbing. 

Friday, November 15, 2013

Tis the season

There are 101 more days until the Iditarod Trail Invitational, which means winter training has officially begun. As of today, my plan is still to attempt the 350-mile distance on foot. But with that beautiful Snoots snow bike parked in my living room, I reserve the right to waffle on that decision for the next 100 days. I mean, just looking at this bike, with its shiny titanium, muscular fork, and shredder tires that make the Fatback look like a toy ... well ... it's fair to say temptation will probably taunt me daily. But for many reasons that I have mulled over since 2011, the goal is finishing on foot. That's the dream. And if I ever want to take the Snoots to Nome, there's arguably no better preparation than walking to McGrath. As Mike Curiak told me, "You already know how to ride a bike." Pushing a bike — and doing so with purpose and happy legs and no blisters — is the key to success. Just ask any biker who entered the 2012 race.

So how does one train for a 350-mile trek through the snow while living in the San Francisco Bay Area? That's a great question; if you know an answer, please let me in on the secret. Short of actual snow, the best surface to train on is soft sand, which I do not have convenient access to (it's at least an hour of driving to the nearest beaches that aren't disgusting swampy South Bay reclamation areas.) In lieu of that, I'm of the opinion that steep climbs are the best way to build the necessary muscle strength for the combined resistance of soft snow and a loaded sled. There is, of course, running while pulling a car tire. While it's not a bad idea to increase the workload on flat surfaces, I'm not convinced that tire-pulling is necessary training. Most of the 14 or so people in the world who like to run these sorts of races will disagree that it's not important, but I haven't yet had a physical issue with not specially training to pull a sled. It's just a lot more work, but doesn't seem to impact my upper body in significant ways. No, when it comes to winter racing, my major issue is feet. To illustrate, I present a photo of my 2012 Susitna feet:

Major feet fail
Bursting-at-the-seems edema, intensely prickly and painful maceration, and heat blisters(!!) from boiling my poor cankles in their own juices. What causes this? I have a few theories:

• A major electrolyte imbalance. I'm fairly certain I experienced a moderate case of hyponatremia during the 2011 Susitna 100. During the second night, I felt out-of-sorts, disoriented, and confused. I attributed that to fatigue because, well, it was the second night — and it was 20 below. But then I started to pee frequently — as in needing to stop every five to ten minutes. This went on for about an hour, and after that I felt considerably better. I've since learned that extreme cold can present a higher risk of hyponatremia, similar to extreme heat. I've resolved to be more cognizant of water and sodium intake, because dry air makes me feel consistently thirsty regardless of temperature, and during the winter I tend to overdo it on fluids because dehydration will increase the risk of hypothermia and frostbite. Ah, the fun of it all.

• Vapor barrier socks. A great idea if you're pedaling a bike and not doing much with your feet; a terrible idea if you're running (or walking) and sweating up a storm. My feet became so deeply macerated that every step felt like hot coals littered with hypodermic needles. This has happened to me as recently as March, during the Homer Epic 100K, which I ran without vapor barrier socks. Gortex shoes and gaitors could also be a factor in holding in moisture, but the balance between breathing and insulation is a difficult one to strike. Basically, I have to figure out how to keep the feet dry without freezing my toes off. I can't depend on the damaged nerves in my formerly frostbitten toes to tip me off when things get dire, so I'll still have to err on the side of more insulation layers. My hope is to have a chance to stop, check my toes, and change into dry socks on reasonably frequent basis. It's not super fun to sit in the snow and strip down to bare feet when it's below zero, but a quick sock change could do wonders in avoiding Susitna feet.

• Too much ibuprofen — which I took because my feet hurt — but before I became a runner I didn't make a habit of tracking my intake. Now I do.

I'm convinced that "Susitna feet" will be the most likely obstacle to finishing the ITI, and therefore must be my number one priority in avoiding. After that, my priorities are: good decisions regarding weather, sleep management, calorie intake, gear adjustments (I need to avoid wearing too much. I always wear too much), snowshoe use (if I want to avoid overusing the snowshoes, I need to build up stronger ankles and arches), navigation, and a host of obstacles and annoyances that I can't even anticipate. When I take all of this into account, the actual walking part of this thing doesn't sound so hard. The legs will likely be fine regardless; they haven't let me down yet. Still, I intend to train them up as well as I can this winter, by running up all the steep trails I can find, and mountain biking. Why mountain biking? Well, if I run all the time I will probably end up injured. I don't need speed, at all, just endurance. Mountain biking keeps things fun, mixes up workloads, and still provides solid endurance building. Plus, winter will be over before I know it, and I need a good biking base for summer.

I plan to keep track of all of the "training" I do this winter through Strava — which, despite its more annoying competitive side, is a great program to track and record total hours, hours on my feet, and overall effort. I don't necessarily like using my GPS watch every time I go outside, but I'm going to try that this season and see if having a comprehensive record helps with motivation and direction. Right now, I feel like I'm in good shape to start more focused winter training. After I crashed in the 25 Hours of Frog Hollow, my right knee developed a sharp pain that slowly diminished over the next ten days. For a while I was worried about it, but the pain has faded to the extent that I'm more convinced it was just a deep bruise or some other minor tissue damage. And beyond that, I feel great. Physically, Frog Hollow was a walk in the park and then I rested for a week. I'm still babying the knee, but no longer concerned.

I still need to decide which pieces of gear I'm going to use, and what I still need to acquire. Beat and I are planning a Christmas trip to Fairbanks, where I'll have more of a chance to sort it all out. Beat has continued to make refinements to his sled, pole, and harness designs. He's put so much thought and time into these sleds that I joked about opening up a business. He said he'd "sponsor" me if I made a logo for him, and this is what I came up with:


Note: This is just a joke. Beat is not actually launching a sled-making business. But he does have quite a bit of high molecular weight polyethylene laying around the house, so, hmmm ...

Beat, of course, has the whole thousand miles on the north route to Nome to tackle this year. Recently I've heard more chatter about those bumper stickers that are so popular with runners — you know, the ones that read "26.2, 13.1, 100.2, or even 0.0" for distances that runners (or non-runners) like to race. Since I was designing graphics, I thought I should make a sticker design for Beat as well:


He reasoned that no one would get it, except for maybe a few dog sled enthusiasts and people from Alaska (1,049 is the often-cited number for the total distance of the Iditarod Trail.) Ah, well. It's an obscure endeavor, this sport — and I love it. 

Monday, November 11, 2013

Finding our community

The concept of community is becoming increasingly more paradoxical in the modern era. Internet, smart phones, and other sources of instant information sharing have contributed to a global community; we can feel just as connected to someone in Bangladesh as we can to the family next door. In other ways, we're more isolated than ever, distrusting our neighbors and remaining clueless about our local issues and leaders. Family and friends scatter all over the world, we change locations multiple times, and it's becoming increasingly more difficult as individuals to define where our "community" resides.

Earlier this year, a friend introduced me to Ann Trason, who is something of a legend in the sport of ultrarunning. She absolutely dominated the sport for more than 15 years, winning the Western States 100 fourteen times and setting a course record that stood for 18 years. Through the '90s, she held world records at the 50-mile, 100-K, 12-hour, and 100-mile distances. Most newer generation trail runners know her name from Christopher McDougall's book "Born to Run," where she was portrayed as a cutthroat competitor and antithesis of the easygoing style of the Tarahumara runners. After 2004 she disappeared from the sport almost entirely, although she continued to serve as the co-director of Dick Collins Firetrails, a popular 50-mile race near Oakland, until 2010. There was, of course, much speculation about why Ann stopped competing. Since she was a private person who didn't give many interviews, the speculation remained just that.

We met for lunch back in July, but then months passed before we found a weekend when we were both in town and not too busy to schedule another meeting. It was just going to be lunch, but then Ann decided to pace one of her friends at the Rio Del Lago 100-mile race near Auburn, California. She invited me to join her and help as crew. That's how I found myself driving east in Ann's Subaru on Saturday afternoon as she frantically changed clothes and organized her hydration pack in the back seat. We made it to the mile 53 aid station a mere three minutes before her runner arrived. Friends there had collected a bib for her that read "PACER" in big block letters. "Do I have to wear this?" she said with a smirk that betrayed a silliness behind her initially serious exterior. "This is so humiliating."

After she took off with her runner, Kevin, Ann's friends asked me how I knew her. I didn't feel a need to beat around the bush about it. "I'm a writer and I'd like to work on a book about her," I said. "But that's up to her whether that happens and honestly I'm happy either way. It's been great getting to know her as a friend. She's a lot of fun."

It's 2013 and, at age 53, Ann Trason is back, although not in the way most people expected. After nearly a decade away, she's become quite active in ultrarunning events this year, pacing friends and others at the Western States 100, the San Diego 100, and the Javelina 100. She also entered and finished two 100-mile races of her own, the Idaho Mountain Trail Ultra Festival in 33:24 ("It was scary," she told me. "I was sure I was going to fall off a cliff. Have you felt like that before?" Since her race happened on Aug. 30, the day I timed out of PTL, I replied. "Yes, and most recently on that exact same day.") The second was the Stagecoach Line 100 in Flagstaff, Arizona, on Oct. 19. She finished in 29:42. ("I was so cold. I couldn't see. My water bottle froze. I was second to last! But I was only disappointed because I wasn't dead last. I thought I was.")

As Ann told me her stories about struggling with technical scrambling, gnawing on a frozen water bottle valve to break up the ice, shivering in the eerie darkness of the desert, slogging along sandy trails with her friends, taking the time to soak up beautiful scenery, and feeling pangs of guilt about not living up to others' expectations, I thought, "Wow, we have so much in common!" But within this new perspective on running is the same woman who possesses phenomenal drive, talent, and success. She still holds the Leadville 100 women's record, which has stood since 1994. But I get the sense that part of her life is done now, and she's happy about that. For many of these past ten years, Ann didn't run at all, even as recreation. She recovered from injuries, participated in long-distance cycling, and tended a massive garden on her property near Michigan Bluff on the Western States course. "I have always been an all or nothing kind of person," Ann told me. "But all I ever really wanted was to run. I love running. I missed it."

But why has she made her way back into ultrarunning, specifically? In a word — community. She wants to give back to the sport in her own ways, and re-integrate into a community that she's felt separated from for too long. She's self-described "out of shape," reluctantly testing the latest gear such as Hoka shoes ("I don't know about these things," she said. "They're like moon shoes."), and is baffled about why she's still drawn to 100 milers ("I said no more after Flagstaff," she said. "But there will probably be more.") But it seems enjoying being "back" in the sense of giving back. She's enthusiastic about sharing her knowledge and experience with the next generation of runners, through coaching, trail work, and pacing at races. She also coaches a middle school running team in Berkley, and enjoys spending time with the kids most of all.

Ann's friend Kevin finished Rio Del Lago 100 in 20:01. The following day, she and I headed out to Ruck-a-Chucky to take some photos on a course section of a 100-kilometer trail race she'd like to launch next fall. I've been experiencing a knee "lock-up" issue since my bike crash last week, so I didn't want to commit to running the whole way. We ran down a steep fireroad down to the American River and then I hiked and jogged up the Western States Trail while she ran down-trail, hoping to grab a few images at a scenic spot further down the river. By the time we got out there it was nearly noon and the light was high and flat, not the best for photography. It was a downright hot day, especially for mid-November, and I didn't have much water. I was frustrated about being somewhat crash-injured yet again, and disappointed about missing out on an opportunity to run with "the great Ann Trason." And yet, I'd already learned so much from her in the past day. Ann has had quite the journey, and this is where she's arrived — with a sense that her home, and her community, is the most important part of her life.


Thursday, November 07, 2013

The Loneliest Highway

I love road trips. In a perfect world, I would always have the time, means, and energy to just ride a bicycle everywhere, even destinations hundreds of miles away. But there's also something special about getting behind the wheel of a vehicle and piloting it across states, absorbing large swaths of scenery and chunks of local culture along the way. 

I've driven all over the North American West during the past ten years, and one of my favorite crossings is Northern Nevada. This segment of Interstate 80 is often described as the most monotonous, least engaging highway in the United States, with nothing but wide-open desert plains and distant barren mountains as far as the eye can see. I disagree with this assessment wholly, but then again these are my kind of landscapes — sweeping and mysterious, with adventurous intrigue lingering on the distant horizons. Still, the twelve-plus hours it takes to drive 800 miles between Los Altos and Salt Lake City is a lot of time to spend in a car by myself. To avoid the boredom sleepies, I keep myself engaged by stopping to take short walks and shoot some photos. This is my photo essay from the California-to-Utah commute.

The view from Donner Pass during the eastbound drive on Oct. 30, looking toward Donner Lake and Truckee, California.

Interstate 80 through Nevada. There are so many mountain ranges here that I want to explore. Someday I will take the time to stay, and not just fly past.

This truck stop has really, really terrible fountain soda. I think it's the well water.

But it does have nice views.

This photo is from the return drive. While gassing up in Wendover, I made a spontaneous decision to detour off I-80 and drive a highway that I've long wanted to travel — Highway 50, also known as the Lincoln Highway and "The Loneliest Highway." Towns along this road are all at least 100 miles apart, and there's little in between but sagebrush deserts and mysterious mountains.

Highway 50 lived up to its moniker as the Loneliest Road. The small amount of traffic I encountered out there was almost disconcerting. I imagine if you traveled this highway in a bad snowstorm and something happened, there's a chance you wouldn't be found for many hours or even days.

Eureka, Nevada.

An overlook view during one of the short walks I took near a BLM area that advertised petroglyphs. I did not find the petroglyphs.

Descending into Austin, Nevada.

Much of Highway 50 is above 6,000 feet. I thought it would be chilly, but temperatures were in the high 50s and even low 60s for most of the day. I *really* wished I could be out riding one of the four bikes I had in the car, but they were too deconstructed and tightly packed to justify a joyride. Also, I was (and still am) stiff and banged up from my bike crash, which I haven't recovered from as quickly as I expected.

A salt flat near Fallon.

Someday I will plan a bicycle tour from California to Utah on these lonely roads. Ideally it would take place during one of these colder months, because otherwise I would have to carry *a lot* of water. Even on pavement it's a hundred miles between resupplies. My kind of space.